The first black women to cover the White House were honored in the briefing room.

The first black women to cover the White House were honored in the briefing room.

On her first day covering the White House, Alice Dunigan had every reason to stand out.

She was the first black woman to join the White House press corps, and was a member of President Harry S. She had arrived an hour early to cover her first press conference with Truman. But when she sat in the lobby of the West Wing, she might as well have been invisible.

“I sat there alone and apparently unnoticed, keeping up with all the activity while glancing occasionally at my newspaper,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Alone on top of the Hill.” “If anyone wondered who I was or why I was there, they made no effort to find out.”

More than 75 years later, Ms. Dunigan’s memory is being honored in the same place where her colleagues once ignored her.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in November named a new lecture Ms. Dunigan and Ethel L. of The Associated Negro Press. Payne, who joined the beat for The Chicago Defender a few years later.

“The White House Lecture is a powerful symbol of freedom and democracy that is broadcast on a regular basis around the world,” said Ms. Jean-Pierre, the first Black woman to serve as White House press secretary. “I can’t think of two better people than Alice and Ethel to be associated with that symbol.”

Over the years, the Briefing Room lecture has become a political artifact as well as a cultural artifact, a room accessible to a privileged few.

April Ryan, the Washington bureau chief and senior White House correspondent for The Grio and the longest-serving Black woman in the White House press corps, said the decision to honor Ms. Dunigan and Ms. Payne made her feel “seen.” Got it done.

“There are still intense moments in Black America, and we are the ones asking those questions, or writing those stories, and asking Blacks the questions that no one else dares to ask, or doesn’t want to, or Thinks they’re important enough to ask,” he said.

Ms. Ryan, who has Former President Donald Trump has attacked And the conservative media said the choice of these two women to ask questions concerning black Americans was particularly poignant.

Both women were chastised by White House officials and later ignored by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often became nervous with their questions about civil rights.

Ms. Dunnigan, who had to Pawn her jewelery to make payment between salaries, He said that white journalists took it for granted that they would be allowed to cover the White House.

“This was nothing unusual for him because white journalists with prestige and status had always been accredited by the White House,” Ms. Dunnigan wrote of her colleagues, who offered “casual congratulations” for finally receiving their credentials.

“I appreciated and treasured this honor, even though I felt I had really earned it the hard way,” he wrote, “hard preparation, perseverance, hard work, acceptable merit, tenacity, a valiant fight and proven Through capability.

She recalled how she had managed to capture her co-workers during a cross-country train trip with Mr. Truman. When the train stopped in Missoula, Mont., at midnight, many other journalists were sleeping, when Mr. Truman came out in his robe and spoke about civil rights to the waiting crowd of students.

She was still awake, and reporters who missed the moment pressured her not to publish the resulting story out of fear it would make her look bad. But it published anyway with a headline: “Pajama-clad President defends civil rights at midnight.”

It took three months for Ms. Payne to ask her first question at Mr. Eisenhower’s news conference, According to an excerpt from his biography, “Eye on the Struggle.” That day came in February 1954, when he asked her about preventing the Howard University choir from performing at a ceremony the President attended – a detail that was omitted in other coverage of the event.

Ms. Payne said of her time in the White House, “The white press was so busy asking questions about other issues that blacks and their problems were completely ignored.”

A question about whether Mr. Eisenhower would take action to ban segregation in interstate travel after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was dismissed by him. Not only did Mr. Eisenhower stop calling him, According to his biographerBut the White House press secretary tried to revoke his press credentials.

Ms. Payne later became known as “First Lady of the Black Press,“And his coverage of the civil rights movement was such instrument President Lyndon B. Johnson invited him to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and gave him one of the pens used to sign the historic legislation.

Presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, who has documented the relationship between the press and the White House for decades, said the Dunigan-Payne lecture was a rare display of solidarity between the White House and the press corps.

“It sounds bloated, but it’s not,” Ms Kumar said.

The naming of the lecture was inspired by the White House Correspondents’ Association creating a lifetime achievement award in honor of the two women in 2022. Ms. Kumar said the Dunnigan-Payne Lecture joins other important lecterns including the Blue Goose, which is used in formal presidential speeches, and the Toast, which is used for toasts at events such as state dinners.

Judy Smith, who served as deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush First black woman to lead a White House press conferenceSaid that the weight of the White House briefing room is felt by those who sit on both sides of the lectern.

“Speaking from the stage, addressing important issues affecting the country, and every single word you say is taken very seriously, and cut and parsed in many different ways – it’s a tremendous responsibility. Is,” Ms. Smith, who was the inspiration for the character Olivia Pope on the hit show “Scandal,” said in an interview.

She added, “I also think it’s important to acknowledge and recognize these women,” as well as the importance of the responsibility they felt.

Ms Dunigan’s granddaughter Alicia Dunigan said her grandmother would be “sad” by the news of the lecture, which was officially dedicated in November.

“She wanted to inspire future generations,” Ms. Dunigan said of her grandmother, who died in 1983. In that room, the lighthouse named after him.”

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